Long Flight? Here’s How to Cope

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Don’t let anxiety stop you from chasing your dreams–all around the world, if necessary. Here is my method for making it through a long flight, even with my extra baggage (metaphorically and literally).

Cabin Pressures

For some folks, the idea of being in a long flight can totally break their dreams for seeing the world or traveling far away. I get it. It’s a scary prospect, if you feel you might be overcome with nerves, feel trapped inside the plane, feel restless and insecure about sitting that long.

I’m a big believer in that old Biblical advice of “overcoming evil by doing good.” I see my anxieties as things that detract from the quality of my life, inside or out of an airplane. For travel, I apply the same mentality. I can overcome my travel fears by replacing them with good things instead, which gives me a ton of ideas to share with you.

My Hope For You

If you are an anxious person like me, the world can sometimes seem to be an impossibly scary place. I hope you read this and know that you aren’t alone. I hope you feel validated in regards to any fears or nervousness you may have had regarding travel to faraway places, or even travel to the grocery store.

My hope for you is that you’ll read this post and think “hey, I can do this!” I hope the world becomes more accessible for you after reading this. I hope you feel that it really truly is possible for you to get out there and grant a few secret wishes for yourself. Trust me, if I can do this, so can you.

Here are all my tricks for making it through daunting long flights.

Commandments for Spending Flight Time

If you’re on a long flight, here are some rules to keep for yourself to spend the time:

  • Thou shalt get as much sleep as possible. Seriously. Besides, the more you sleep, the shorter your flight will seem, plus your brain will be nice and rested and your mood will be lifted. Wins all around, unless of course, you sleep through meals, which leads me to:
  • Thou shalt not sleep through in-flight services. My most recent flight to Buenos Aires served a light breakfast before attempting to land. We were unable to land in Buenos Aires due to heavy fog, and we got diverted to Montevideo, Uruguay. There we had to wait for the fog to lift, to be able to refuel, and then to head back to Buenos Aires. The whole process from landing took around five hours, and by the time I was able to get off the plane, I hadn’t had anything to eat or drink in over 8 hours. That’s a long time in-between energy boosts. Just think how much longer it would have been if I had slept through breakfast! My point is, if you get an opportunity for fresh food while traveling, take it. You never know if it’ll take a little longer to get to your next meal, which again leads me to:
  • Thou shalt never miss an opportunity for fresh food, fresh water, or fresh bathrooms. Don’t ever wait until “later” to eat, drink clean water, or use a clean restroom. Even if you aren’t famished or doing a potty dance. Keep all your systems as fresh and updated as possible because while you’re traveling, you just never know what can happen.
  • Thou shalt use the airplane restroom every few hours. If it has gotten dirty, tell the flight attendants about it. They’ll clean it right up and restock everything, don’t worry. And don’t feel guilty, either–they’re the ones with the disposable gloves to keep everything nice. They have what they need to clean up and be protected, and you don’t, so it’s better to ask. Use the restroom every few hours, regardless of if you feel like it. Even if your bladder isn’t full, remember the plane has put your body through thousands of micromovements every hour. No doubt your bladder will have something to say about a-movin’ and a-shakin’ during flight. Plus, this is another opportunity to move and stretch, and while traveling you’ve got to take every one of those that you can.
  • Thou shalt stretch often. This comes in several ways. First, you can do breathing exercises softly, which won’t disturb your neighbors. This exercises your diaphragm, which counts as stretching! Plus getting plenty of air will prevent your brain from developing any sort of claustrophobic messages (aka the last thing you need in an airplane). Contract and release the muscles in your thighs. Do a sitting version of calf raises. Lift one foot at a time and make circles underneath the seat in front of you. Stretch your wrists and forearms by making circles with your hands. Do anything and everything to keep your circulation flowing while you are seated. Every so often, stretch and walk around the cabin.
  • Thou shalt tell your brain “everything is all good.” Do this by doing things that will tell your brain your day is normal, as much as possible. This means having a bedtime routine that you can do on the plane, such as washing your face (even if it is just with a face wipe) and brushing your teeth. Put on lotion, if you usually do before bed. When you wake up, wash face and brush your teeth again, just as you normally would. I bring a rosary with me on flights and say it while I am preparing my brain to go to sleep. I simply keep the beads under my blanket and say prayers mentally for an added sense of privacy, which I find calming. Say other prayers if/when you normally do.
  • Thou shalt be a good neighbor. Notice the ways in which your neighbor might be vulnerable. Got an aisle seat? That means you are on deck for making sure your neighbor is able to stand up and stretch/use the bathroom whenever they may want to. I have actually seen people get annoyed about this, and I thought they were acting like spoiled brats. We are all sharing the flight together and some of us get different “jobs” than others. That’s life. Deal with it. It’s also your job to be patient with parents of young children who are traveling. My last flight was the temporary home for a very wonderful toddler who only had one meltdown during the flight. Parents often take toddlers for a walk during the flight, stretching their legs down the aisles, and providing them some entertainment and stimulation looking at the plane. Smile, wave, coo at them. Flying can be scary–little ones need as many friendly faces and happy times as possible. Besides, smiling, giggling, happy toddlers are funny and adorable, and can even give you a mood boost during your flight. So if it helps them be calm and happy, it’s gonna help you have more peace to rest. Yeah, that means if they’re having a bad flight, it’s kinda partially your fault as a co-passenger. Again, life. Deal with it.
    SIDE NOTE: Usually individuals who are nervous on flights are actually the best people to share cabins with. Being sensitive, they are often more in tune with their senses of empathy and consideration. If you have a neighbor in flight that seems scared, comfort them and tell them your name! Say you’re around if they need anything, and let them know that you know how it feels to be nervous.

Use Media to Soothe and Distract

Many airlines offer streaming of newly released movies. This is great news for people like me who don’t often go to the cinema. I usually am able to catch up on movies that my friends have been talking about, which is a bonus for sure.

If you are prone to motion sickness, make sure you keep a steady stream of dramamine in your system, starting right before your flight. Trust me. Watching movies is a great idea during flight, but a bad idea if watching the screen makes you motion-sick.

Remember movies aren’t your only source of entertainment. Download podcasts or your favorite shows from your preferred streaming platform before your flight. I like dozing-off to the sounds of “Little House on the Prairie,” for example. Make sure your favorite music is already downloaded to your phone so you can listen to it without a wifi connection.

Set a Schedule

Ok! That was a ton of information. Here’s how your flight might look if you use every one of my tips.

Pre-Flight: Pop a dose of dramamine, drink a bottle of water.
Boarding: Settle in, get comfy, smile at neighbors, enjoy takeoff.
Media: Listen to music or start a movie.
In-flight service: Ask for a bottle of water to sip as well as your favorite beverage. (I never drink alcohol on flights, too dehydrating. I always get a ginger ale with ice.) Take time to enjoy every ice cube. Remember sucking on ice chips also keeps you hydrated.
Movie Time: It’s officially your job to watch and mentally critique a new release.
In-flight service: Even airline food is something to be grateful for if you decide to savor and slowly enjoy every bite. Remember to chew extra since you are stuck sitting down, and this will help your digestion. Finish your movie while eating, and look–you have dinner and a show! Look at you, living the good life. Way to go, jet-setter!
Post-meal Workout: Calf raises, circles of hands and feet, contracting muscles. Get up and use the restroom. Breathing exercises. Do this slowly–I’m talking at least 100 reps of each exercise. Don’t worry, you do have the time, after all. Plus, counting is a good meditative distraction for your brain.
“Nighttime” Routine: Get up and use the restroom again. Wash your face, and brush your teeth. Drink from your water bottle. Stretch. Breathing exercises. Say prayers. If your airline offers you a sleep mask, use it. Let your eyes get a break from lights and screens. If you can’t sleep, tell yourself you’re going to give yourself what feels like 15 minutes of dark time, just to let your brain get un-stimulated and your eyes get some good rest from light. You don’t absolutely have to sleep, just let yourself rest.
Wakefulness: If you do happen to be wakeful/unable to sleep, repeat everything on your schedule as many times as needed. Yes, you can brush your teeth 3 times over your flight, who would complain? No one is even going to know. A little activity, a little dark-time rest, it’s a good cadence to have, no matter how many times you repeat it.
Rest time over: It’s time for a “morning” routine. Wake up, stretch, wash face, brush teeth.
Movie Time Again: Enjoy another show! I love comedies on flights.
In-flight service: If your flight is long enough, you’ll have another service before landing. If food is offered, follow the same rule of slowly savoring everything, with extra chewing to get those digestive juices flowing more than usual.
Post-meal Workout again: Same as before. Do your mini flight “workout,” use the bathroom and prepare for landing.

Whose Afraid of the Big Bad Bird Now?

If you really imagine yourself completing each step, does it really feel so daunting to schedule a long flight anymore? It shouldn’t. You should feel like “hey, I have so much to do on this airplane, there’s no way I’m going to feel restless.”

When I finally got to arrive in Buenos Aires, Eugene even said to me “Hey: for being on a plane for 20 hours, you sure do look good!” He was amazed. He thought I was magic. I felt magical!

If you do these things, just think about it: You’ll be rested, hydrated, fueled, relaxed, hygienic, and refreshed. What better condition could you possibly be upon arrival? What more could you ask to help yourself face those times when things don’t go according to plan–which so often happens during travel? It’s a lot of work in a schedule. But it’s worth it–especially if you have a nervous disposition. You can overcome travel anxiety by doing good things.

That’s a good rule for life, too.

Resources

Some things to consider:

If you are traveling internationally, you’ll be at a really high altitude, which can make the cabin super chilly. Dress warm for your flight, and use the blanket they give you. You can also look for products like this:

Also, circulation is key. Lots of times people need a little extra support for their legs, but this can be a challenge with limited leg room. Products like this offer a way to convert your tray table into a footrest:

Finally, for travelers with children, an inflatable pillow can turn into a footrest, or a seat extender when it’s time to convert your little one’s seat into a bed for sleeping:

Fear of Flying? You Aren’t Alone

Here’s a great story about a retired Air Force pilot who became a therapist to help others address their fear of flying. Maybe you can relate to some of the things these folks are going through. You’ll be comforted to know that you aren’t stuck with this fear, and there are real actions you can take whenever you’re ready, at your own pace.
Mel Robbins is such a good voice of reason. Here she talks you through the whole flight process–while actually going through it herself. You’ll see exactly what she sees, and she’ll talk you through all the little steps along the way. Well…almost exactly what she sees. She clearly sits in first class, which isn’t anything I’ve ever seen, but whatever, it still counts as good advice.
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